Seventeen of New Mexico’s 35 state parks are based around an artificial lake of which by far the largest is Elephant Butte, a 40,000-acre expanse formed by a concrete dam (completed 1916) across the Rio Grande River, a few miles north of Truth Or Consequences and 80 miles from Las Cruces.
The park contains 200 miles of shoreline and over 40 miles of the river valley including a band of marshland several miles upstream of the lake’s high water mark extending almost as far as Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge though most visitor activities are concentrated in a five mile section along the southwest shore and include marinas, boat launch ramps, campsites, picnic areas, and beaches.
There is plenty of water and plenty of beach room at New Mexico’s largest state park. Elephant Butte Lake can accommodate watercraft of many styles and sizes: kayaks, jet skis, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, cruisers, and houseboats. Besides sandy beaches, the state park offers restrooms, picnic area, playgrounds, and developed sites with electric and water hook-ups for RVs.
Elephant Butte Lake is one of the most visited state parks in New Mexico, popular because of the abundant water recreation and the easy access, just a few miles off Interstate 25.
This part of the Rio Grande valley forms the northernmost tip of the great Chihuahuan Desert so summer temperatures are hot and the vegetation includes several types of cactus. The lake itself is named after a strangely-shaped remnant of an ancient volcano now forming an island just opposite the dam.
The visitor center and state park headquarters are reached by State Routes 179 and 195; near the junction, a spur road leads to facilities including a launch ramp near Marina Del Sur and to a number of picnic areas and overlooks. The scenery here is typical of the whole lake—earthen hills sloping quite gently down to the water, sparsely covered with straggly bushes and cacti, many small bays and inlets, several islands, and a higher range of hills along the inaccessible east side of the reservoir.
The main shoreline access is a little further north via Rock Canyon Drive forking off SR-195 in the middle of Elephant Butte, a small village offering all kinds of boat-related businesses. This paved road follows close to the water’s edge for 8 miles before turning inland and meeting Interstate 25 at exit 89. En route are many side roads, some paved with facilities and self-pay fee stations, others unpaved and free to enter.
Before the dam was built the Rio Grande River flowed through on its way to Mexico. In 1905, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation received approval from the United States Congress to construct Elephant Butte Dam and Spillway to provide flood control and irrigation downriver. Construction of the dam started in 1911 and was finished in 1915. Materials and supplies were brought in by rail and transported to the dam by a 300-horse-power electric-motor-powered cable system.
Upon completion, the dam had a 1,674-foot crest, a spillway, and a road running across the top. The channel and the downstream concrete-lined chute weren’t completed until 1922. In 1940, a 23,400-kilowatt hydroelectric power plant connected to the dam began operating. One year later, the spillway was used for the first time and then not used again until 1985 when the lake reached its record high.
The most common misconception visitors have of the lake is that the water levels have become dangerously low. However, even at its current level, water in the lake is up to 30 feet and in places 60 feet deep.
During the late 1980s to mid-1990s the water levels were at their highest. It even flowed over the floodgates of the dam. Before then it looked just like it does today. Even at its lowest levels Elephant Butte Lake can support boating, fishing, and many other types of aquatic fun.
Fun on the water
Speaking of fun, there is a lot to be had on the water. Bring your watercraft whether it’s a houseboat, yacht, speed boat, fishing boat, rowboat, jet-ski, kayak, canoe, or paddleboard.
Don’t have your own? Don’t worry! There are numerous places to rent your toy of choice for a few hours, the day, or the whole weekend.
Fishing is another popular activity at the lake and a fishing license is required to cast your line. You can get them at Zia Kayak Outfitters or Walmart in Truth or Consequences.
Elephant Butte Lake is known for record-breaking black, white, and striped bass as well as crappie and bluegill. The lake is stocked with all kinds of fish including four species of bass, catfish, carp, salmon, pike, walleye, and sunfish.
There are fun landmarks to explore while on the water like Kettle Top Mountain which avid lake-goers use as a geographical reference. Pirate’s Cove is a great place to anchor, go for a swim, and mingle. Castle Rock is a popular . . . well . . . rock in the middle of the lake that people climb and jump off. And, most famous of all, the elephant: a volcanic core that looks like an elephant lying down. You’ve likely already guessed that’s how Elephant Butte acquired its name!
There are two marinas to serve boaters:
- Dam Site Marina, near the rock formation for which the lake is named, is also within view of the Elephant Butte Dam. The marina has a store and offers kayak and standup paddle board rentals.
- Marina del Sur is located at the main entrance to Elephant Butte State Park and offers boat rentals, slip rentals, dockside facilities, and a convenience store.
Fun on land
How about some lakeside hiking and nature observing? West Lakeshore Trail is a six-foot-wide hiking and biking trail with a gravel surface that spans 12 miles through the desert along the lake. It can be accessed from six different trailheads including Overlook Trailhead and Sailboat Cove Trailhead. Dirt Dam Trail is 1.5 miles of fully paved road that is closed to traffic making it a safe spot for hiking with children and pets. Use the restroom and pick up snacks first as there are no facilities along the trail.
The Paseo del Rio Interpretive Trail is a one-mile loop, half gravel and half paved. This trail features great views and restrooms at the trailhead and midway point of the loop.
The closest hiking trail to Marina del Sur is the Lucchini Trail, a sandy 1.5-mile loop that can be accessed near the Elephant Butte State Park Visitor Center and the Desert Cove Campground where you will also find restrooms.
This park is a prime area for waterbirds and shorebirds. The best birding is between September and May. At the lake, you may see American white pelicans, thousands of western and Clark’s grebes, several terns, and unusual gulls. Some of the better birding spots are at the marinas at Long Point, Three Sisters Point, and South Monticello Point (check for shorebirds, gulls, terns, waders, and ducks). Loons are more common at the southern end of the lake. Birding on land is best from Rock Canyon south where tall scrub and houses with plants and feeders attract numerous species. Check migrating horned lark flocks for longspurs.
Camping is available in various designated areas located throughout Elephant Butte Lake State Park. Despite its large size, the park has an elaborate system of roads within it that makes the park reasonably easy to navigate—SR-181, SR-195, SR-171, and SR-51 all wind through parts of the park. Inside the campgrounds, visitors can make use of sites that accommodate rigs of up to nearly 90 feet long with a mix of pull-through and back-in options.
Elephant Butte Lake State Park has plenty of campsites to offer guests with 173 developed campsites, 144 water and electric sites, and eight full-hookup sites spread across four campgrounds and multiple primitive camping areas.
Desert Cove Campground is in the southern half of the park, just north of the Visitor Center and offers 16 reservable sites with water and 50-amp electric hookups. These sites are all back-in access and can accommodate rigs of up to 50 feet in length.
South Monticello Campground is home to 15 reservable sites and even more first-come, first-served sites. The campground is located in the far northern area of the park past many of the primitive camping areas. These sites can accommodate vehicles up to 87 feet in length and offer water in-site, electric hookups, a table, canopy, and fire ring. Some of these sites also offer views of the lake. Guests at South Monticello Campground can also make use of the RV dump station located near the entrance to the campground, the restrooms, and showers located in the campground, and easy access to both hiking trails and a boat ramp.
Quail Run Campground is located next to Desert Cove Campground and has an additional set of RV campsites, two of which can be reserved ahead of time. These sites offer 20- to 30-amp electric hookups and can accommodate rigs of up to 73 feet in length. Some of the sites offer pull-through access and stunning lake views depending on the water level. Each site has a table, canopy, and fire ring. Visitors can also make use of the restrooms located in the campground and the dump station located at Desert Cove Campground. Guests staying at Quail Run Campground will be about one mile away from the lake and a half-mile from a playground. Guests can also enjoy easy access to nearby Luchimi Trail.
Just northeast of Desert Cove Campground, Lions Beach Campground offers 25 sites which feature water and 30-amp electric hookups. Many of these sites offer stunning views of the lake and most have a table, canopy, and fire ring. These sites are all back-in access and can accommodate rigs of up to 70 feet in length. Visitors can also make use of the modern restrooms with running water and an RV sanitation dump station located in the campground. Guests staying at Lions Beach Campground can enjoy very easy access to the lake and nearby access to hiking trails. Some of the sites at Lions Beach Campground can be reserved ahead of time, while others are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Location: Southern New Mexico, 80 miles north of Las Cruces
Elephant Butte Lake surface area: 40,000 acres
Park Elevation: 4,527 feet
Daily entrance fee: $5/vehicle
Annual pass: $40/vehicle
Maximum RV camping length: 87 feet
If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.